November 11 is not a statutory holiday in Canada. As far as I know, it never has been.
I remember being in elementary school and learning the poem, “In Flanders Fields”, and a bit about what it meant and why it was written, and who wrote it, and of course, the always solemn “2 minutes of silence”. But I was usually in school when the 2 minutes of silence occurred, and we weren’t really taught an awful lot about what it really meant. In junior high school, very little indeed was taught about the meaning behind Remembrance Day, and in high school, unless the social studies curriculum allowed it, or the teacher made a point of bringing it up, those 2 minutes of silence were observed with little comprehension by most of the students. That’s just the way it is in Canada. (Or at least, that’s the way it was in Edmonton in the ’60s.)
It was my mother who gave me some insight into the meaning and personal experience of soldiering and war so that I could begin to comprehend the meaning behind the poppy and Remembrance Day. My maternal grandfather left his family and homeland (like the vast majority of immigrants to North America since the beginning of our colonization) because of the devastation of war and the certainty of persecution by those who had been victorious in war and because of the opportunity for a better life. When he left Bratislava, in the early years of the 20th century, Eastern Europe was in upheaval politically, and war was surely imminent. (Think “Fiddler on the Roof”, except he wasn’t Jewish, he was “just” a teenaged ethnic-Polish peasant living in what was at the time known as Austro-Hungary.) He left family scattered in Warsaw and in Ternopol. (I think it’s like having family in Edmonton and Calgary, only not in the same country and province – just by mileage). He was a young man when he left his family and made his way to Canada via England, no older than 18. Canada was very much in need of young, strong and willing workers and the opportunities were beyond belief (if the advertisements were to be believed). I don’t know how he purchased his passage, and it is one of those questions that makes my imagination go wild sometimes, because I know the family was not wealthy, although they did have a few acres of personally owned land in the midst of a seriously outdated feudal system.
My mother told me that his ship stopped in Southampton, although he never set foot on English soil, and I always wondered if he saw the Titanic, because it would have been around the same time – 1911-1912.
He came to Canada because in 1912 when we were still a young country and still looking for people to settle our vast western plains, and homesteads were plentiful and available to those who were willing to work hard to earn their own piece of land. And he did just that. And then he watched as two of his sons were called up to fight in a war far from their home, a war fought on the soil of a continent their father had left years before in a bid to escape their very fate.
I believe now, with the wisdom of age, that Remembrance Day should be a national statutory holiday. It is about Remembering. It IS about war. It is about service to one’s country and it is about first and foremost remembering those who have offered their lives for the service of their country and the cause of their country, and, in my mind perhaps alone, regardless of what that cause is. This is for those who have offered, suffered, or died, in the service of their country. Whether it’s my country’s cause or not. They are all young men and women with hopes and dreams and beliefs and they deserve to be remembered.